How I am using technology to disrupt the education industry

by Steven Maguire
August 13, 2014

I moved to Chicago in January 2010 to join TrainSignal, a then 20 person company based in Schaumburg, IL., as the only web employee on the payroll. TrainSignal offered IT professional certification training to administrators and practitioners looking to level-up their career with certifications in systems administration, virtualization, networking, and a several other areas of expertise. TrainSignal's founder, Scott Skinger had bootstrapped the business over the previous 7 years selling DVDs of training material to customers exclusively using a variety of over-the-counter ecommerce products.

Over the course of the following years, TrainSignal went through a complete metamorphosis from traditional ecommerce company to technology driven SaaS company. We staffed a technology team of 19, we built a new software infrastructure to publish content, engage with students, collect recurring payments, report key performance indicators, and we learned a lot of valuable lessons about what it means to disrupt the traditional education system with technology.

Our students were life-long learners who consistently communicated a need for the type of education and learning materials that were not available in higher education institutions.

Armed with this information, we delivered a modest set of online learning tools that gave these students exactly what they were looking for; up-to-date interactive training at an affordable price. In February 2013 TrainSignal relaunched with zero customers, zero revenue, and a clear mission to grow for the future. July 31, 2013 brought a public announcement that Pluralsight, another online education platform focused on software development training had acquired TrainSignal for $23.6MM. TrainSignal had about 100,000 users and was on pace for $10 million in revenue after earning $7.4 million in 2012.

One year later, I am on track to do it again.

I joined the Packback team as the Head of Engineering in May of this year. Much like TrainSignal, Packback is responding to a clear message from college students across the country about the painful state of affairs around accessing information printed in textbooks.

With the support of students and investors, Packback is answering this cry for help by offering college students relief in the form of one-day rentals of college textbooks for $3 to $5 in a digital format.

With publisher contracts, rights to 21 textbooks, a small team, and an MVP built on the Magento Community Edition ecommerce platform, Packback launched a pilot of this offering last August.

That pilot was a certified success, and our company has been on a fast track of growth ever since. Our exposure to college students was fueled by a national appearance on Shark Tank (landing a deal with Mark Cuban) along with various national publications including most recently the Wall Street Journal which have covered the growth of Packback.

Today, our library boasts more than 2,500 titles available for one-day rental, price comparison for over 300,000 ISBNs, a tool to help students find the highest price when selling physical textbooks at the end of the semester, and a lot fun engineering challenges to help the company scale. 

Our team is growing. I am actively hiring a front-end engineer and an open-source developer to join our cause. We are sunsetting the Magento application, building new projects for each business function, and embracing the frameworks, tools and best-practices that help us get the job done well.

Imagine what this story will look like one year from today.

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